Rachel looks like a soccer mom. On most days her minivan is cluttered with backpacks and sports gear. Leftover Goldfish and Cheerios are ground into the floorboards. When dropping her kids off at school in the morning, Rachel often sweeps her long blond hair into a messy bun at the nape of her neck.
On a sticky summer Tuesday morning, Rachel was stopped at a red light on the corner of Genesee and Balboa after dropping her youngest daughter off at preschool. She was un-showered and wearing a loose-fitting T-shirt and a pair of ratty cut-off sweatpants. The air conditioning in her gold-tone late-model minivan was busted, so her windows were rolled all the way down. Rachel was singing along to a pop song on her radio when a souped-up black pickup pulled up next to her with a good-looking younger man behind the wheel.
“I was in the turn lane, and he stopped his car in the middle lane next to me even though there were no cars in front of him,” Rachel recalls. Their eyes met. He smiled and shouted, “Hey, pretty lady! Can I have your phone number?”
Rachel blushed and held up her ring finger for the man to see and replied, “Sorry, happily married for 16 years!” The light changed and she drove away.
Rachel admits that she was momentarily flattered. It was a nice compliment to hear while in full mom mode. Minutes later, Rachel backed her minivan into her Linda Vista driveway and busied herself cleaning out her van. While depositing garbage into a gray trashcan left on her curb for pick-up day, she was startled to see the same truck from the red light parked in her cul-de-sac. The young man climbed out and started walking toward Rachel.
“What are you doing here?” Rachel asked, her voice bubbling with a mixture of fear and frustration. “I told you I am happily married.” She put her hands up in an attempt to send a clear message for him to stay back.
“I had a feeling of uncertainty. He didn’t look vicious or violent. He was smaller in build than me. He didn’t come off threatening. It was a very awkward moment. I was obviously much older than him. I’d already told him I was married. I had never been approached by anyone like that before.”
The man began pleading with Rachel: “I want to get to know you! I want to be your friend,” He begged, “Let’s go to the beach. Have coffee with me. I have kids, too. We can talk about our kids.”
“I kept repeating, ‘You need to leave. I don’t want to be friends with you.’”
Rachel’s 11-year-old son was inside. He opened the door and popped his head out to check on his mother. This startled the man.
“He seemed surprised and said, ‘You aren’t home alone?’”
Fearful for her son’s safety, Rachel shouted, “Get in the house! Lock the doors!”
When she turned back around, the man was walking briskly toward her.
“I put my hand up to stop him. I was afraid because he was walking closer to the house. I didn’t know if he had a gun or a knife, if he wanted to kill me, or rape me. He took my hand and put it on his heart. He said, ‘My heart aches for you.’ I took my hand away. When I did that, he thrusted toward me.”
Rachel pauses to wipe tears from her blue eyes. When she regains her composure she continues, “He put me in a body lock. He put one of his legs between my legs. He pushed my left leg out and wrapped his other leg around me so I couldn’t move backwards without tripping and falling. One of his arms wrapped around my back. He pulled me into him. He wrapped his other arm tightly around my shoulders and neck. He held my neck tight with his hand. He started grinding into me.”
Rachel froze. She didn’t scream. Her heart was racing. Her eyes met his, which seemed to be staring through her. He had her arms pinned to the side of her body.
“Somehow, I was able to squirm through. And then I punched him in an upward motion on the lower jaw, hard. He stumbled back in shock. I broke free and shouted, ‘I am calling the cops!’”
The man ran toward his truck, got in, and sped away.
Rachel called her husband’s cell phone. He didn’t answer. She then called a friend who lived nearby. He encouraged her to call the cops. She did. Three uniformed officers showed up almost immediately. They took down a description of the man and his vehicle.
“It all happened so quickly that I couldn’t remember all the details. I couldn’t even tell them if the truck was a Ford or a Chevy. I knew it was black with silver wheels and it had a silver chain-link design around the license plate. I didn’t remember if he was wearing a V-neck or a button-down.”
The police scoured the neighborhood. After several hours they were unable to find him and nothing more could be done. They said they would keep a lookout for him.
The next morning a group of detectives from the SDPD’s Sex Crimes Unit showed up at Rachel’s house unexpectedly. It was early. She was still in her pajamas fixing breakfast for the kids. They asked Rachel to come down to the station to answer more questions. They explained that they were flagging the incident for sex trafficking.
Rachel laughs, “It sounded so absurd. In my mind I didn’t fit that stereotype. That was for runaways and hookers. They explained to me that there was a new trend in trafficking. The officer said, ‘You were targeted.’A woman on a Tuesday afternoon in a school area driving a minivan hardly screams ‘I am available.’ But they were finding that sex traffickers were targeting young moms because we don’t like to make a scene. We are looking out for the safety and wellbeing of our children and not ourselves.”
Rachel went on to explain that the police believed the man who approached her was what those in the sex-trafficking business refer to as a targeter.
“This person targets women. He sees how far he can go before the woman retaliates. If they don’t retaliate, that makes them an easier target. They try to find vulnerable women and pounce. They will go around and follow that person to find out their schedule, see what parks and grocery stores they go to. When they collect that information they give it to the taker. The taker will monitor that person for a couple of weeks or months, to find out the best time to take that person, whether it be their morning job, or when they are sitting in their car checking their phone, not paying attention to their surroundings. The police assumed the person who attacked me was still working a certain perimeter [of San Diego] for targeting.”
At the police station, Rachel worked with a sketch artist to compose a likeness of her assailant.
“That’s the thing,” Rachel tells me, “when I first noticed this young man, I didn’t really notice him. I didn’t take account of him. It didn’t hit me until I had to sit in a chair and have an artist try to draw how far away his eyebrows were from each other and the bridge of his nose, the shape of his eye, that I didn’t take a real mental picture of him. It was frustrating. Ever since then, I play mental games with myself, memorizing license-plate numbers and the exact details of strangers’ faces, just in case.”
Two days later, the police found a man at a nearby park matching Rachel’s description.
“They found him at a park around the corner from Horizon school [in Clairemont]. There is a little community park right there. [Plain-clothed officers] saw a man matching the description I gave them approach a couple of different women at the park. He went up to a blonde woman, kept getting closer, and closer, and closer. She pushed him away. Police swooped in and got him.”
They asked the blonde what he was saying and it was almost word-for-word the same lines he had used on Rachel: “My heart aches for you. I want to get to know you better. Let’s go to the beach. Let’s have coffee.”
Rachel drove down to the Western Division police station on Gaines Street to identify him.
“They had five or six people that were similar in height and description. I picked him out right away. They told me to go home, they would call me later. Later they told me that they couldn’t really arrest him on an assumption of assault and battery. They took his picture and booked him. They kept him there for 48 hours.”
A background check revealed only a misdemeanor.
Explains Rachel, “They said, ‘You could take him to court. You positively identified him. He matches your description, but he didn’t penetrate you. It wasn’t rape. He didn’t cause you any bodily harm or physical damage to any property you own.’ He wasn’t even physically on my property; he was on my cul-de-sac. He wasn’t trespassing, so really what would I take him to court for? That he freaked me out?”
Officers told Rachel that the district attorney would point out that she didn’t run or scream right away and that initially she didn’t feel she was in danger.
Rachel shrugs and adds, “The DA might say, ‘Maybe you were leading him on.’ The officers explained that there are all these different scenarios that could make him look like an innocent man that I was dragging through the mud, even though clearly that was not the case.”
In the end, the man was released. The emotional drama wasn’t worth it. Rachel was told if she pressed chargers and took him to court, her attacker would only end up with 60 days in jail and a couple of hours of community service. He did, however, walk away with a record — not a charge, an arrest for sexual assault.
The memory of that day sticks with her.
“I didn’t think something like that would ever happen to me. It was such a shocking experience. It all happened so fast. I was shaking for days and couldn’t sleep.” Rachel breaks down and through tears continues, “Community parks no longer felt safe. I was super cautious all the time. If I was out with my kids, and I felt uncomfortable we would have to pack up and go home. I don’t let me kids play alone in our front yard, ever. You don’t know what will happen. He was a nice-looking young man. I wouldn’t expect him to be threatening or intimidating. In my mind, all those drug dealers or sex-trafficking people would have a certain look to them. He did not have that. He was a clean-cut, classy looking guy.”
After the attack, Rachel grew anxious anytime an unfamiliar car drove down her street. The slightest noises terrified her. So, after a week, she took her three kids and stayed at her parents’ house in Alaska for the rest of the summer.
“Our family was new to California. My husband had just been stationed at the Coast Guard base. I almost didn’t come back, but I got a job as a secretary at the kids’ school. The principal wanted me to start the week before school started. When I came back I couldn’t sleep. There were a lot of night-sweats and terrors. When my husband had duty in the evening, I couldn’t sleep. I was done with California. In Alaska I could chit-chat with strangers without having to worry; here it felt different. My husband didn’t really understand it. He wasn’t there when I was interviewed by police or when I had to do the lineup. When I explained to him that they got the guy, his response was, ‘Well, that is good. Now it’s done.’ But it really wasn’t done; not for me, anyway.”
Rachel still struggles with the idea that her attacker is out there, walking around free.
“It makes me really angry. I know he didn’t cause me any bodily harm. I could have had it a lot worse, I know I could have. But why do we have to wait until it gets to that point to get crazies off the street?! He had no good intentions. He obviously had sinister motives, yet because the way our system is set up, he is allowed a second chance. That is scary. It’s scarier for other young moms out there that might have to go through the same thing. The Christian in me says, ‘Forgive him. Maybe he has used this experience to learn and grow and carve out a better life for himself.’ But, I don’t care to learn if he turned his life around.”